10 Times Animals Helped Scientists Solve Big Mysteries
They may not wear lab coats, but creatures big and small can help scientists study global warming, cancer, earthquakes, and more.
Ground squirrels aid astronauts
Weightlessness can have a profound effect on the human body. Astronauts who return from even brief visits to space suffer from significant muscle and bone loss and spend weeks regaining their strength. For clues into how to remedy this issue, scientists are looking closely at the Artctic ground squirrel, a furry rodent that awakens from months’ long hibernation with no noticeable difference in muscle or bone. “If we can understand how they do it, we can replicate it in humans,” University of Alaska at Fairbanks biochemist Kelly Drew tells The Washington Post.
Narwhals monitor climate change
Scientists hoping to record the effects of climate change on the frigid waters of Greenland’s Baffin Bay enlisted the help of narwhals, the so-called “unicorns of the ocean” known for their single 9-foot tusks and ability to withstand freezing water. In 2010, University of Washington marine biologist Kristin Laidre and her team attached thermometers and satellite transmitters to 14 narwhals and tracked the whales while they spent the winter in the Bay. The resulting data comprised the most comprehensive collection of water temperature ever recorded for the area. You won’t believe these 13 creepy real experiments that sound like science fiction.
Zebrafish uncover cancer secrets
Surprisingly, zebrafish and humans have a substantial number of genes in common, including APC, a gene associated with colon cancer. The transparent black-and-white minnows also reproduce frequently and develop into adults in a matter of days, allowing scientists like David Jones, a cancer researcher at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, to study their developing cells. “There is no limit to the impact this little fish can have on unraveling the mysteries of human disease,” Jones tells The Oklahoman.
Rats reveal land mines
In Mozambique, Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries, hidden landmines left over from decades of conflict still dot the landscape, preventing development and slowing economic growth. Luckily, Tanzania-based organization Apopo may have found a four-legged solution. The aid group trains Gambian pouched rats to sniff out landmines, which are later deactivated. The rats are light enough not to detonate the mine and “can reliably check the ground faster than a human with a metal detector,” Zacarias Chambe, an Apopo deminer, tells The Economist.
Wild animals predict earthquakes
A fascinating study in Peru may confirm the widely-held belief that animals detect earthquakes weeks before they hit. Over a 23-day period before the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit south of Lima on October 28, 2011, scientists recorded five or fewer animal sightings per day, compared to five to 15 sightings previously. In the week before the earthquake, experts observed no animal movements. “Animals have the potential to be reliable forecasters of earthquakes and could be used alongside other monitoring systems,” Rachel A. Grant, the lead researcher, tells Thomson Reuters Foundation. These are 12 of the smartest animal species in the world.
Leeches reveal which animals are in a forest
In a dense forest, you probably can’t spot all the animals living there. That’s why scientists are turning to leeches and bugs to teach them about the forest’s animals. Parasites contain DNA from the animals they feed on, so researchers hope that studying them will help them study mammal diversity in Papua New Guinea without tracking down the animals themselves.
Parrots poked holes in accepted theories
Scientists strapped tiny goggles on a parrotlet, then had it fly through a laser. When the results came out, the scientists realized the vortexes of air moved differently than established scientific theories would have predicted. “All three models we tried out were very inaccurate because they make assumptions that aren’t necessarily true,” Stanford University graduate student Diana Chin tells Wired. Here are 8 more notable animals that changed history.
Whales show the secret to longevity
As the longest-living mammal in the world, bowhead whales could hide anti-aging secrets for humans. Researchers believe the key to living up to 211 years old was the whales’ lack of cancer—which is even more impressive given the fact that with 2,000 times as many cells as humans, they should have a much higher risk of cancer. Scientists are trying to find a clue in their genomes to what keeps them ticking.
Kingfishers inspired bullet trains
When Japanese engineers invented crazy-fast 200-mile-an-hour bullet trains, they didn’t account for the sonic boom the trains would create when leaving tunnels. To silence their trains, scientists took a cue from kingfishers, whose pointed beaks let them dive into the water without making a splash. With new, long noses, the highly efficient trains are way quieter and finally meet noise standards. Learn about 10 other animals with unbelievable superpowers.
Sheep and goats predict volcanic eruptions
By tracking goats and sheep in Italy, German scientist Martin Wikelski discovered the livestock could predict volcanic eruptions four to six hours before they hit. They’d wake up and pace nervously, then move to safe areas—the more vegetation a spot had, the more likely it was that lava had missed it before. Now, check out these 15 mysteries science still hasn’t figured out.